Welcome witches and warlocks,
Shoreside has certainly seen better days. Sure, there is still popcorn on offer, games to be played, and a duo of musicians strumming out staples like Sea of Love, but the wooden planks lining much of the boardwalk combined with the graffiti tell a tale of a seaside destination on the decline. It is into this world that we first step as we approach the Garry Marshall Theater to see Rogue Artists Ensemble production of Wood Boy Dog Fish.
For those unfamiliar with the conceit, Wood Boy Dog Fish is a dark retelling of Carlo Collodi’s classic The Adventures of Pinocchio that comes complete with puppets, masks, music, and a scene done up in 3-D. Make no mistake about the content, this production does not shy away from the darker themes involved in the tale so it is probably better suited for teenagers or adults.
If it is not apparent from my opening paragraph, there is a lot to see even before one enters the theater. Since I already mentioned the musicians and the games, I think I will focus in on the backstory they build. Both in and out of the lobby are various displays that provide some insight into what has been going on in the seaside town of Shoreside prior to where our story begins. Outside of the building these hints towards the backstory come in the form of warning posters, graffiti, and the weathered look of the exterior decorations. As we make our way into the theater proper, we discover what almost looks like museum exhibits that highlight what is known about the Dog Fish as well as the history of Shoreside. Even in here, there is a rundown look that is achieved through simple things like letters missing from signs, a dustiness around the displays, and the worn look about the items. There is a lot to take in even before the show begins so I would highly recommend arriving early to enjoy everything on offer.
Once the theater doors open we are handed a Shoreside Newspaper (read as: themed program) and a pair of 3-D glasses with instructions that we will not have to use them until act two.
With all that out of the way, the show begins.
Again I have to emphasize that this production does not shy away from the darkness of Collodi’s original story. For those who only know the tale of Pinocchio through various kids movie adaptations this might come as a shock as the source material was not afraid to tackle brutal versions of punishment such as maiming or murder. They manage to juxtapose these moments with a sort of dark sense of humor that can make something as simple as the word, “Candy,” seem imposing.
The plot itself manages to remain faithful to the intentions of the original story rather than being a point by point adaptation. Along the way certain things either get cut or changed in ways that will be more familiar to audiences who have seen one of the many different versions of the tale.
Even with this being kept in mind; the whole things feels relatively contemporary thanks to the boardwalk setting, the use of special effects, and added things like alcoholism or blow up dolls. Touches like this make the story much more accessible to a modern day audience because it just feels so in the moment while also keeping the morality that was a touchstone of the novel intact.
In the updating process they managed to strike a very interesting look for the show by using easily movable sets, masks, puppets, projection effects, and 3-D. The production values are truly top notch from the ridiculously clad Cat and Fox, to the masked Funland emcee, to Wood Boy’s spin on the Dog Fish ride. Many of the creepier sequences within the show involve the Dog Fish, who is wisely kept to the shadows to build up the suspense. While we might not see him in full light, much of what we do see has a larger than life design that tips us off fairly immediately to how we are supposed to feel about a certain character or scene. To me, the most horrifying scene involves a character actually removing their mask, yet still remaining monstrous underneath. The seediness that infects the town of Shoreside makes the audience’s hope that Wood Boy will somehow save the community all the more prevalent.
Since this is a show adapting The Adventure of Pinocchio, I feel I must talk a bit about the Wood Boy puppet. This bad boy is a thing of absolute beauty as it not only looks cool, but manages to move in impressive ways. The only issue that I took with the puppet was that it was not designed to have a moving mouth, so that took me just a little while to get used to. Even with that being kept in mind, the team manipulating our hero manages to imbue the whole thing with so much personality that when the darker moments hit one cannot help but empathize with the wood based prop.
Not everything in this play is doom and gloom as there is still the aforementioned hope. Face it; we all have some level of familiarity with the original tale so we have a general idea of how things are going to turn out. Along the way they build the story so that we know the future of the community is riding on the shoulders of this misbehaving puppet which just leads us to anticipate the confrontation with the Dog Fish all the more. I will admit that the showdown with Dog Fish felt a little rushed, but they actually used the structure of the story to address the idea that the darkness is not the point. Maybe, just maybe, the point is the journey, the innocence, the heart, and the rebirth.
All in all, this is a fantastic reinterpretation of Mr. Collodi’s novel that manages to feel unique. The whole thing has a nice contemporary feel thanks to the wonderfully dark production values. Fans of theater or The Adventures of Pinocchio should definitely give this a look.
Wood Boy Dog Fish runs May 18 through June 24, with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.
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